Songwriting is a very personal thing. If you talk to 100 songwriters, you’ll probably get 100 different methods that they use for conjuring up songs. As for me, I learned very early on that I’m not particularly good at writing lyrics, but I can write catchy riffs that grab peoples attention, so that’s what I focus on.
Figuring out my songwriting strengths lifted a huge weight off me. I had this preconception that if I was going to write a song, I had to write the entire song, including music and lyrics. But that’s just not the case. Focus on what you are good at, and do that.
For the album creation project I'm chronicling here at Macworld.com, I write the music while my partner, Al Doy, handles the lyrics. Here’s how the two of us are writing songs for the album we’re putting together.
First of all, I don’t go into my home recording studio and say, “OK, I’m going to write a song now.” It doesn’t work that way for me—I either feel it or I don’t. If I don’t, then a song doesn’t get written. Regardless, I always have the same process. And it always involves GarageBand.
I launch Apple's music creation software and add a drum loop to the project. Typically, I’ll loop it for 200 beats or more, so if I get into a groove I can keep it going. Then I add an audio track for my guitar and click Record.
Then I just play. Whatever comes out is pure inspiration on what I am feeling at the time, the beat and tempo of the drums and what my fingers decide to do. It seems very simple and I guess it is, but that’s what works for me. GarageBand becomes a scratchpad for anything that comes into my head.
What I like about this system is its simplicity. I don’t get caught up in adding effects or breaks or anything else, I just play. I don’t ever stop recording—sometimes I stop playing and start again with something completely different. When I’m done, I’ll listen to the track and see if there are any gems in there—even a 10-second fragment of music gives me something to work with.
If I find something in the track I like, I’ll take that section and begin to work with it. A lot of times I don’t even know if what I have is the chorus or verse—honestly, at this point, it doesn’t matter.
As I start playing with the riff, something usually comes to me that separates the parts into what will become the chorus and verse. I’m still not worried about a pre-chorus or a bridge at this point. What I’m trying to do is get the basics of the track down.
When I have a verse and a chorus section, I’ll add an Arrange track in GarageBand and cut the song into sections. I use the Arrange track for sheer convenience—it makes it very easy to cut up a song and cut and paste the different sections into place.
The end product is typically a 45-second to 1-minute clip of a song idea. I give Al the very basic layout of the music with a couple of verses and choruses. I add the track to iTunes from GarageBand and then send the file to Al for a listen. If it inspires him at all, he will let me know right away, so we can add it to our “working on” pile.
He'll also let me know exactly what he needs for his lyrics. For example, he may need an opening, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, and ending. This is when GarageBand's Arrange track comes in handy. With the song already cut up in its basic form, I can add the sections that Al needs very quickly.
At this point it’s time for the vocals. Al comes over, and I play the music from GarageBand while he sings. It’s very basic, but now we have a good idea of what we have. If we decide we like the song, I will take it and write the bridge and other pieces that we will need to make a finished song. That's when we move the song out of GarageBand, with me re-recording all of the guitars, bass, and vocals; I also use the proper effects to make everything sound more professional.
The one and only thing that may change in this songwriting process is the guitar I use. If I'm in a mellow mood, I'll break out my Taylor acoustic, Blues may be my Squire Strat or Taylor electric and my Jackson or Les Paul with their active pickups for harder rock.
If I could offer one piece of advice that I learned over the years it would be not to get caught up in details too early on in the process. I used to get so caught up in my guitar tone and adding effects, that I ended up losing the inspiration that I had in the first place. Now I work with the inspiration and worry about the details during the next part of the process—it works much better for me.
But I'd certainly be interested in hearing about other songwriting approaches as well as what software comes into play.